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These days people are looking for ways to protect themselves and their families from harmful germs. Now, more than ever, folks are thinking about what they are bringing into their homes. SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19 has significantly changed our daily lives in so many ways. We slather our hands in sanitizer. Some even change clothes in the garage after a shopping trip. We wear masks everywhere. Those with a compromised immune system or high-risk category are wiping down packages coming from grocery delivery. Many are using grocery delivery or curbside pickup for the first time in their lives. While these are all good ways to lower risk of transmission, some are taking it too far. It goes without saying – but I still must say it – Don’t Bleach Produce, People!
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report based on data gathered from calls to poison control centers and an online survey of 502 United States adults that took place in May 2020. This survey was designed to identify knowledge and household practices regarding cleaning and disinfecting during the pandemic. The results were disturbing.
Shocking Use of Household Chemicals and Disinfectants
This CDC report revealed that since onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have been unsafely misusing household chemical and disinfectants in the name of protecting themselves. Poison control centers have noted a sharp uptick in calls since the pandemic started.
What does this mean? A large percentage of respondents are “engaged in non-recommended high-risk practices with the intent of preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission.” A whopping 39% of respondents admitted to using bleach on food products, applying household cleaning and disinfectant product to the skin, and/or intentionally inhaling or ingesting cleaners and disinfectants. Not surprisingly, those respondents that engaged in these “high-risk practices” also reported adverse health effects as a result of using those cleaners or disinfectants at a higher rate than those that didn’t admit to misusing these products.
That being said, despite the unsafe application of these cleaners, approximately half of the survey respondents were in denial and indicated that they knew how to clean and disinfect their home safely.
The survey also indicated that folks knew where to turn to as a trusted source for COVID related cleaning information, with the CDC indicated by 65% of responses, state or local health departments at 49%, and doctors, nurse, or medical providers at 48% response rate.
This is interesting considering none of those information sources would indicate ingesting or cleaning food with household cleaners as a means of protecting against COVID-19 exposure.
If not with cleaners, how should we be cleaning our produce to reduce exposure?
Safe Produce Practices
In addition to choosing produce that isn’t bruised or damaged and ensuring that pre-cut produce are refrigerated or on ice, both at the store and when you get home, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a set of eight tips to safely clean fruits and vegetables.
Tip #1: Wash Your Hands
The golden rule of food safety is “wash your hands.” Wash them before AND after preparing fresh produce. Before, to prevent you from contaminating the produce with anything you may have come in contact with, and after to protect yourself and your family in case the produce happens to be contaminated with something. Wash your hands with warm water and soap, lathering for 20 seconds. Consider singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
Tip #2: Avoid Damaged or Bruise Produce
Damaged or bruised areas on produce allow a spot for bad bugs to get inside, where they cannot be easily washed or removed. If there is damage or bruising to your produce, cut away the damaged areas before preparing or eating.
Tip #3: Rinse Produce BEFORE Peeling
For produce that requires peeling, the outside should be rinsed BEFORE you peel it. Otherwise the knife can drag dirt and bacteria from the surface onto the inside of the fruit or vegetable.
Tip #4: Rub Produce Under Running Water
To remove dirt and germs from produce, simply rub it while holding it under plain running water. There is no need to use soap or a produce wash to clean your fruits and vegetables. This mechanical action, paired with running water dislodges dirt and pathogens, allowing it to be washed away.
Tip #5: There Are Times When a Vegetable Brush is Useful
A vegetable brush can be used to scrub firm produce, such as melons, cucumbers, and potatoes. A vegetable brush is not optimal for softer produce, such as tomatoes. Aggressive scrubbing may cause bruising or damage, particularly on thinner skinned produce.
Tip #6: Dry Produce with a Clean Cloth or Paper Towel
After rubbing under running water, dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel. This mechanical action serves two purposes. To dry the produce you intend to eat or prepare, and to reduce the bacteria that might still be present on the food.
Tip #7: Remove Outermost Leaves of Leafy Vegetables
The outermost leaves of leafy vegetables are the most likely to be contaminated, as they are in direct contact with the environment. For vegetables such as a head of lettuce or cabbage, those should be removed prior to rinsing for best results.
Tip #8: Store Perishable Produce in the Refrigerator
To maintain freshness and prevent bacterial growth, perishable produce should be stored in the refrigerator at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a good idea to have a thermometer in the refrigerator to keep an eye on the temperature. A refrigerator that is too cold may cause damage to items you don’t want frozen, but a refrigerator that is too warm can allow harmful bacteria to grow and thrive in the food you are intending to protect.
What Are You Doing to Protect Your Family?
As we navigate these extreme times, consider the extra steps you can take to help protect your family from biological harm. On the flip side, be sure that those measures you are taking aren’t going to do more harm than good.
By: Heather Van Tassell